The ground floor of the Museum gives the story of Alton before Jane, her mother and sister moved to the nearby village of Chawton but it explains why the town became the place she knew.
The displays on the first floor start with aspects of life in the early 1800s which coincide with the Austens’ arrival here in the summer of 1809. This leaflet attempts to highlight items which have a direct relevance to her life and time.
The milestone plate showing London 48 miles and Winchester 16 miles comes from the stone at the Alton end of Winchester Road, by The Butts railway bridges. In Jane’s time, this stone was one of the first things she would have passed when returning to Chawton from Alton having shopped or visited family and friends. The milestone itself now has a replica plate.
The coaching horn of coachman Fred Barnard would have been a familiar sight to Jane as would the blunderbuss. Fortunately Jane does not seem to have met with any highwaymen during her travels to London and Kent although they were not uncommon during her lifetime. On her journeys Jane would have seen the less well-off using hammers to break stones for road mending.
Jane would have passed the toll gate at the end of Whitedown Lane when visiting her niece, Anna Lefroy, and her family who leased Wyards for about three years. Toll houses, such as the ones near the Dukes Head in Alton, displayed boards (similar to the one here in the Museum that came from Farringdon) listing their charges and Jane would have seen it every time she came to Alton. If she was on foot, there was no toll to be paid.
The Swan in Alton would also have been familiar as it was the stage post for the coach which took her to London to see her brothers Henry and Edward. Another inn that the Austen family must have been aware of was the Star in Southampton as they lived in that city before moving to Chawton.
The Red Rover coach did not start its journeys until after Jane died but she mentioned Collyer’s, the coach in the painting of 1806, in her letters. In 1814 she wrote ‘It may never come to anything, but I must provide for the possibility, by troubling you [to] send up my Silk Pelisse by Collier on Saturday’ and, just over a year later, ‘I want to get rid of some of my Things, & therefore shall send down a parcel by Collier on Saturday’. Collyer’s coach took six and a half hours to get to London from Alton.
One picture in this case shows Wyards Farm - the home of Jane’s niece and her husband, Anna and Benjamin Lefroy, with whom Jane often exchanged visits. There is also a picture of St Lawrence’s Church. Here were baptised the children of the Lefroys, Digweeds and Terrys, friends of the Austens, as well as a son and daughter of Jane’s brother Capt. Francis Austen. Another of Jane’s brothers, Henry, officiated here from August 1817 until April 1818.
The smock, or round frock as it was sometimes known, must be similar to that worn by many of Chawton’s men. Jane’s mother is said to have worn a green round smock when gardening. An item which has come from Chawton is the Parish Beadle’s staff of office used there between 1820 and 1830 - just after Jane’s death but in the time of her sister Cassandra. A Beadle was a parish officer who was appointed by the Vestry and acted as assistant to the constable and, possibly, as village crier.
On display is a clock by John Snelling. Just before Jane went to Winchester to seek further medical help, her sister-in-law (Mary Austen, second wife of James Austen) wrote in her diary on May 15, 1817, ‘I dined at Capt Austens bought a watch at Snelling.’ William Roe was also making clocks and watches at the time.
This gives a brief account of her life and connections with this area of Hampshire.
The chalkland case gives an idea of what the local countryside that Jane knew looked like. When well, she often took walks with friends and family. Chawton Park Woods were a popular destination and, in September 1807, Jane’s niece Fanny recorded that she went ‘to Chawton Park Wood, rambles and ate sandwiches’ and she ‘rode to Chawton Park’ with her father and Aunt Jane in July 1813. Some of the woods were coppiced while other trees were allowed to grow to their full height. William Triggs was the estate gamekeeper and he would have been on the lookout for poachers. It is not known if he ever used a man-trap.
The Alton Association was formed for ‘Preventing Robberies, Thefts, and Misdemeanours, Protection of Persons and Property and Prosecuting Offenders’. One of the subscribers was Jane’s brother, Edward, even though he mainly lived in Kent. Perhaps, because he was not in the area, he felt the need to protect his property. Other who had paid to join included William Prowting, William Baigen, Honor Andrews and John Kersley who all farmed in Chawton.
In the end room is a case showing items associated with the Curtis family. Dr William Curtis of Alton attended Jane in her last illness, before she went to Winchester. In April 1817, Jane Austen wrote:-‘my having seen Mr Curtis, or my Disorder’s chusing to go away, have made me better this morning’ but, by the end of May, she observed, in her last surviving letter written from Chawton, that ‘Our Alton Apothy did not pretend to be able to cope with it’.
Jane’s doctor lived opposite the Curtis Museum at no.4 High Street. His cousin was William Curtis, the botanist, whose achievements are shown in a wall display near to that for Jane. The Curtis Museum was named after his son, another Dr William Curtis.
Around the walls of the Museum are several pictures of the town. Many of these views would be familiar to Jane if she were to visit the town today.